The truth is, it%u2019s always been a lousy business. My husband, Steve Buttry, has spent his 38-year professional life working in the newspaper business. After all that time, he%u2019s worn out.
We were college students when one of the papers in the city (yeah, there was still more than one paper per city back then) folded. The reporters arrived at the newsroom that day to be told to clear out their desks instead of going to work. The Fort Worth Press had ceased publication. Two years later, when our first son was still an infant, my husband came home and told me the publisher%u2019s wife at the small paper where he worked wanted him fired because a story he wrote embarrassed her friend. (He did not lose his job.) Six years later, I%u2019d just found out I was pregnant with our third child when the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, where Steve worked, announced they%u2019d decided to shutter the Tribune. I spent much of that pregnancy waiting to hear if my husband would still be employed by the time the baby was born. (He was.) At a little weekly where I worked part-time, when we received our paychecks we raced to the bank on the corner to cash them. The last in line often had their checks bounce. Good journalist friends have been furloughed and laid off (a few by my husband). Steve has been fired once, reorganized too many times to count, been marginalized and had a story spiked at the request of the then-Archbishop of Omaha.
Like I said %u2013 a lousy business.
So who would want to be a journalist? It has always been work for the strong-hearted, the bull-headed and the hopelessly romantic. People do this work because they love it. They love telling stories, however grim, seamy, or heartbreaking. In fact, the more heartbreaking the better.
But here%u2019s a story that every working journalist, or would-be journalist, should hold in mind. Years ago, when a dear friend was in college, he also worked at the city newspaper. Aware he was fortunate, he gave the job everything, to the point that he sometimes just fell asleep in the newsroom. One morning an editor walked in to find him, bleary eyed, just waking. Shaking her head, the editor told him, Son, you can love this business with everything you%u2019ve got. Just don%u2019t forget that it is never, ever, going to love you back.
True words. Good advice.
I have always known I was not the only love in Steve%u2019s life. There%u2019s a wonderful line we often quote to each other from the great old Humphrey Bogart movie, %u201CDeadline USA.%u201D Bogie says to the publisher%u2019s widow, %u201CBut he loved you,%u201D and she replies with a snort, %u201COh passionately. Between editions.%u201D I%u2019m not asking for sympathy. In spite of the lousy business, we%u2019ve had a whole lot of fun between those editions. His love for his work isn%u2019t something I%u2019d change about him, any more than I%u2019d change the color of his eyes.
As a teenager writing for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel, Steve got to do this work sitting at a rolltop desk. The quaintness of the antique appealed to him, with its slots and pigeonholes he filled up with notebooks and clippings. Like only the young can, I%u2019m sure he sat there many nights, clicking on his typewriter and fantasizing about becoming the next William Allen White. Of course his future held computer terminals and newsroom cubicles. Still, carrying on the fine tradition of journalism fit both our desires for his life%u2019s work. On our 10th anniversary, I bought him a rolltop desk of his own, and for years my early-rising husband would sit down at it every morning, starting his day%u2019s work long before he got to the newsroom.
My husband is a passionate man, and he%u2019s poured his heart into the newspaper business. I%u2019ve held him when he returned from reporting on a drug-fueled bank robbery that left five victims dead in 40 seconds; after he returned from the rubble of Murrah building when it was bombed in Oklahoma City; after he laid off people who, like him, only wanted to keep working at the thing loved. Whatever the business asked of him, he did. But that long-ago editor%u2019s words were true. His love has been unrequited.
A few months ago, I realized he%u2019d had enough. He was finally ready to break off the relationship.
He%u2019d spent the last few years trying to lead newspapers where they must go to survive in this new age. It wasn%u2019t going well. Recent leadership changes where he worked put him in a role of a well paid blogger. But sitting on the sideline, commenting on a business slowly circling the drain was not his idea of meaningful work. That morning he was leaving for a meeting a couple hundred miles away to help plan a seminar on the future of the business. He%u2019d had a very short night%u2019s sleep. We%u2019d returned late the night before from a family funeral in Vermont. When he asked me to ride along with him I thought he needed company to distract from his grief or maybe just a voice to help him stay awake on the drive. But it was more than that. After the meeting I picked him up and when I glanced over at him, he looked more haggard, more downcast than I%u2019ve ever seen him. He said, %u201CThey%u2019re planning the usual shit they always do. This business isn%u2019t going to change. And the honest truth is, it%u2019s too late now anyway.%u201D In that instant I knew not only would he leave his job, he would leave the newspaper industry entirely. All it would take was the right opportunity.
I understood. You see, he was not the first in our family to give up on newspapers. Last summer, in the midst of a temper tantrum at our local paper, I told Steve I would not allow any newspaper into our home. Not the city paper, not any paper. When he laughed, my rage subsided enough for a rueful smile. We both knew I was addicted. I grew up reading the Des Moines Register. As a four-year-old, I would stretch out with the paper, picking out the words I could identify, longing for the day when I knew enough of them to understand the whole story. When I did, I loved reading even more than I dreamed. Poring over printed words became my daily ritual. I didn%u2019t even mind when the ink rubbed off on my hands.
Steve and I both knew my newspaper ban wouldn%u2019t last. But it did. There weren%u2019t even any withdrawal symptoms. I changed a lifetime habit overnight and it didn%u2019t hurt a bit. Every morning I turn on my laptop and catch up with the news. At first I wondered if I%u2019d stay as well informed. That seems na�ve now. I am better and more quickly informed. I no longer rely on an editor to pick and choose what news I will read. My news is no longer a day old. The only limit is the time I will give it. I hit links off my Twitter stream. I troll newspaper web sites. I visit all-digital news sites. Newspapers have cannibalized their product to make ends meet for so long, I%u2019ve lost nothing in the way of quality. If a web site has a paywall, I move on. I can always find someone else who%u2019s willing to give me the story for free.
Our defections are not unusual. A few weeks ago the friend who loved the work so much he slept in the newsroom, told me this story: He was home when a news bulletin came on the TV about a tragic, local event that caused several deaths. He looked at his phone, willing it not to ring. He didn%u2019t want the newsroom to call and put him on the story. He didn%u2019t have the heart for it. The cutbacks, the layoffs, the deadly newsroom morale had sucked the life out of his passion. He was simply worn out by it all. When the next round of buyouts came, he took one.
The end of a love affair is always a little sordid, isn%u2019t it? Awkward moments, bracketed by false reassurances that everything is still OK, postpone the inevitable. I have a Twitter friend who delights in collecting metaphors used to describe the sinking newspaper business. Here%u2019s a new one for you, Nick. The people who run newspapers and those who work for them are engaged in useless foreplay. They cling tightly, trying again and again to make the way they%u2019ve always done it still work, but the passion is gone. They talk change: tearing down silos, building audience and monetizing content. But talk is their only capability. They eye non-profit status with government subsidies like it%u2019s Viagra for print. They tussle through regrouping, %u201Cright-sizing,%u201D and stripping down to %u201Clean and mean.%u201D They reorganize, then reorganize again, then grope their way back to same old position that no longer works. The wretched gyrations are hideously frustrating for the poor souls involved, and sadly fruitless. They give birth to nothing new. The newspaper business is an aging, impotent beast, bringing down a lot of good journalists who are tangled in its foundering arms.
For my husband, the right opportunity presented itself. He%u2019s moved on. He%u2019s taken a job with a digital organization that plans to compete with the Washington Post for local news. It%u2019s a little disheartening to move again, but he thrives on meaningful work and uprooting is a small price to pay. In an ironic twist, when the buyers of our condo came to sign the paperwork, they asked if we%u2019d throw my husband%u2019s rolltop desk into the deal. I didn%u2019t answer. It does, after all, belong to him. For a second his eyes narrowed as he looked at it, a passing twinge of memories. And then he shrugged and said, %u201CTake it.%u201D Like Rhett Butler, he no longer gives a damn.
For myself, I learned a long time ago the one thing we can count on is change. Because of my husband%u2019s work, my life has had a rootlessness to it that I never intended, but have come to accept. The only thing that%u2019s brought me to tears during our latest upheaval is the number of colleagues who%u2019ve have contacted him about a job with the same company. So many good people, so desperate to escape the beast%u2019s arms.
Do I think this will be our last move? Maybe. Do I think this upstart start-up will be successful? I hope so. Do I think other news organizations follow? Beats me. The truth is, there%u2019re only three things I can say with certainty about this new endeavor:
1.My husband will throw himself into his new job and he will love it.
2.This new business will not love him back.
What a wonderfully written and thoughtful column about the newspaper industry. I believe this is something you see across the industry: journalists being disenchanted with newspapers and jumping ship to move online or in some other direction. And I can't say that I blame them.
I truly enjoy working at a newspaper and seeing my work in print, but I have to wonder if I'm just going down with the ship. I would love to believe that newspapers will make a comeback and find some niche in the media world (I still don't believe print newspapers will ever die...) but I'm just not sure that it will really happen.
I see how far behind the curve newspapers are and I don't see enough effort to get ahead. An awful economy forcing cuts doesn't help anything.